If you are new to the SDS Challenge, a little background.
Three writers will each write one story a month going down the list of deadly sins. The stories can be anywhere from 666 words to 6,666 words in length, although those numbers are not set in stone. If ambitious, the writers will provide accompanying graphics. These stories will not be anonymous because some writers may want to use the same characters for each story and write a series — or book — encompassing all seven sins. Finally, interpretation of the titular sin is up to the writer. Meaning, each ‘sin’ can take multiple forms.
The seventh set of stories cover the sin of Sloth. This is the offering by Perry Broxson.
Disclaimer: The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories will likely span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Perry is writing a novella linking all of the seven sins, but breaking each sin up into semi-stand-alone offerings. Because of this, he asked that I include this prologue/synopsis to set up the story:
The Sloth Queen
Copyright 2021 — Perry Broxson
(13,190 words – approx. reading time: about 50 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Inside the tornadic maelstrom of fire and smoke, Ralph was confused. The smoke was so dense that he had not seen the vehicle of his salvation – Doggerrall. Perplexed, he guessed his wings magically rejuvenated and provided lift for him and his human cargo. Or, perhaps, it was more banal: an updraft, wrought from the churning winds of the burning church. Either way, he was ascending – soaring, upward, out of harm’s way.
“They can’t come,” Doggerrall said, his voice booming and disembodied.
“Who? What? Doggerrall, is that you?” Ralph asked, blinking the sting of smoke from his eyes.
“They can’t come where we’re going,” Doggerrall insisted. “Shall I drop them?”
“Drop . . . no!” Ralph yelled, the whir of firestorm muting him. “NOOOO! Don’t drop anyone . . . Doggerrall . . . please!”
The dragon flexed his serpentine neck into a U, presenting his saurian face to Ralph. “Nobody rides for free,” he said, brandishing crooked rows of his tiered teeth.
Governor Gowdy coughed, rubbing his throat with both hands.
“The man,” Ralph explained, “Governor Gowdy. Can you place him somewhere . . . safe? Somewhere on the ground.”
Miffed, Doggerrall snorted his displeasure. Abruptly, he altered his upward trajectory, leaving the cyclone of smoke, and dove over a verdant hill. On the backside of the ridge, he observed the kidney shape of shimmering blue water. He banked and strafed the terrain, mere meters above surface level. A brown man in white shorts shouted Spanish profanities, shaking a long-handled pool skimmer. “Diablo! Diablo!”
Then, at the penultimate moment, Doggerrall bristled his spines, flicking the chubby governor off his back and into the clear water.
Ralph panicked, reaching for the hand of the flying, falling man.
“He’s safe,” Doggerrall assured.
Ralph wiped his eyes again and saw that the dragon was right. Governor Robert “Rowdy” Gowdy had landed in the deep end of a luxurious swimming pool – one owned, no doubt, by an affluent tax-paying constituent of the good governor. Ralph relaxed when the pool maintainer dropped the skimmer and dove into the water to rescue the sputtering governor.
“And the other one?” Doggerrall asked, reversing his flight path, vectoring back into the roiling helix of smoke.
“She,” Ralph started, “she’s coming with us.”
Doggerrall bent his great neck and sniffed Virginia. “She’s dead. Her spirit has departed.”
“I know,” Ralph said.
Doggerrall flexed his spines, attempting to eject the body. Ralph double-clutched her, saving her from jettison.
“She’s dead,” Doggerrall insisted. “The fall will not make her any more dead.”
“She comes with us,” Ralph maintained, wrapping her in his broken wings.
The trio climbed higher and higher until the column of smoke dissipated. At the top of the dirty sky, where the smudged atmosphere thinned and boarders blurred, Ralph observed a phenomenon. It was a hole – no, a portal. It was the passageway, he intuited, to the Celestial Realm – a door to The Chamber.
“She can’t come,” Doggerrall growled, bristling his hackles.
“She’s coming. Discussion over. The portal is closing. Quit yapping and start flapping!”
“She’s dead,” Doggerrall explained. “A corpse. Rotting meat. A defilement to Our Betters.”
“Our Betters bedamned,” Ralph spat. “The portal is closing, Doggerrall. And if it does – we’re the corpses. We’re the rotting meat. Fly! Fly! Fly!”
Doggerrall did fly. It was a close call. The spikes on the end of his tail were clipped as the aperture contracted and slammed shut. He yelped as if stung, then scowled at his stubborn passenger. He hissed and squinted his golden eyes, signaling vengeance.
Vengeance was swift. The next seconds were the most disorienting of Ralph’s life. Doggerrall made it his personal mission to sicken his rider with breakneck speed and gut-wrenching aerobatics. The landing was just as harrowing. Doggerrall’s big body crabbed sideways, then crashed across the foggy floor of the Chamber, sprawling and spinning.
“Oh my Gods,” Mr. Jordan said, covering his mouth with his fingertips. “What have we here?”
Thrown, Ralph tumbled across the floor, with Virginia ensconced in his wings. The crawling clouds parted as if ploughed as he bowled toward Mr. Jordan’s feet. Finally, he stopped. He looked up at the man peering down and said, “You gotta do something, Jordan.”
“Whatever do you mean? Do what?”
Ralph allowed his crippled wings to unfold and reveal the lifeless body of Virginia DeVine.
“She’s dead,” Doggerrall said, answering Jordan’s inevitable question.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Mr. Jordan stammered, backing up, hands flapping in protest. “No, no, no, no . . . this can’t happen. Not here. We don’t do dead. Our Betters won’t –”
“Fuck Our Betters,” Ralph said. “I’ve lost too many people – too many loved ones. I’m tired of losing. Fix her.”
“Fix her?” Mr. Jordan asked.
Doggerrall sidled up to Jordan and tapped his head with his recurved claw. “He’s lost more than loved ones. He’s lost his mind.”
“Shut up,” Ralph shouted. “Shut up and listen. Both of you. I’ve Captured and Caged six Cardinal Sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. I did it. Me. Ralph Chamberlain.” He stood and snatched the Ark Amulet necklace from his neck, then emptied the contents into the Ark of the Covenant like a man emptying an ash tray. “Me. Ralph Chamberlain. A sixty-year-old man. A husband. A father. A grandfather. And what have I gotten for my troubles?” He paused and looked around the endless room and its two residents. “More troubles,” he answered. “Troubles in the form of a dead ex-wife, dead daughter, and . . .” he teared up, thinking of Mirabelle . . . “and if my Miri has been harmed, so help me Gods” –
“Stop,” Mr. Jordan snapped. “Before you say something stupid – irredeemably stupid – stop and listen.”
Ralph controlled himself. He wanted to vent – to scream, to hit something, but his disciplined angel nature restrained him. “I’m listening.”
“I can’t resurrect her,” Mr. Jordan said flatly. “Impossible.”
“You can and you will,” Ralph said, bridling his emotions. He walked over to the Ark of the Covenant. He stroked the gold-cast angels that adorned the lid. “Because if you don’t, I’m going to break this crate wide open and release the six Cardinals. Then I’m going to rally my fellow angels into action – into battle.”
“Battle,” Ralph said, “against the Gods. Against Our Betters.”
Mr. Jordan laughed so uproariously that spit flecked into his mustache. He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief and said, “You jest.”
“Jesters jest,” Ralph said, grinding his molars. “I’m no longer the jester for these cruel kings – these cosmic brats. They want amusement? I’ll give them amusement.” Ralph kicked the Ark and tipped it on its side. The latch broke and the lid opened slightly.
“Oh dear,” Jordan said, scrambling to secure the box.
Ralph animated Fidel. The sword sprung forward, positioning its tip under Mr. Jordan’s chin, just above his Windsor knot.
Doggerrall hissed and arched his back as gelatinous appendages clawed and scrabbled in the opening, clamoring for freedom, keening and snarling.
“You can’t win,” Jordan said, sliding his finger along the edge of the sword. “It’s their game. Their rules.”
“Maybe not,” Ralph said, shaving gray stubble from the actor’s jowl. “But I can take a page from Hoss Proffit’s playbook and unleash a whole lot of unholy hurt.”
Mr. Jordan smiled wryly, then leaned into the steel. The point of the sword pricked his waddled neck, causing a trickle of blood to blot his starched white collar. Jordan said, “It’s a Gods’ game, Ralph, and it’s rigged. You’re not a god. To Them, you’re little more than a performing pigeon – you, with your wings and your pointy foil.”
“Don’t push me, Jordan,” Ralph said, vibrating the steel like a tuning fork.
Mr. Jordan pursed his lips and sniffed dismissively; then he lurched forward, impaling his neck onto Ralph’s faithful sword.
“Jordan!” Ralph shouted, retracting Fidel.
Mr. Jordan took out his handkerchief and dabbed at the gaping puncture. The blood, however, would not be staunched. It chugged from his carotid artery in looping gouts, spoiling his suit and buttoned shirt.
“Are you . . . ?” Ralph said, searching for his next words. Then, inexplicably, he swapped the words all right for a God?
Jordan laughed and blood spurted in rhythm with his heaves. “You have forgotten . . . of course you have. The Ash of Amnesia. Yes, Raphael, to answer your question: I was once a God – a minor member of the pantheon.”
“But now,” Ralph asked, “you’re not . . . not a God? What then, are you?”
Doggerrall casually shat and kicked fog over the slimy mound with his hind leg. He then flapped his leathery wings to dissipate the stench.
Mr. Jordan strolled over the fecal heap and nimbly knelt, grasping a handful of scat and rolling it into a round pellet. He looked up at Ralph, as if formulating his reply. He repeated the question with Shakespearian aplomb, rephrased: “What then, am I? What then, am I?”
He regarded the ball of dragon scat as if it were a scintillating jewel; then, to Ralph’s surprise, Jordan plugged it into the gash in his neck. Not only did the bleeding stop; it was as if the harm had never happened. Jordan’s blood-stained suit and shirt, cleansed. The crimson fog that coiled around their calves, whitened. The iron odor of hot blood, evaporated.
“I,” Jordan finally said, “am the jester. Not you, Raphael. Me.” He tried to smile but failed. His brilliant gray eyes dimmed and then moistened. He hid them with his bent head and closed lids.
“You can do it,” Ralph said, more encouraged than ever. “You can bring Virginia back. Heal her. You may not be a God, but you’re certainly not a jester. Do it, Mr. Jordan. I beg of you, please.”
Jordan looked up, meeting Ralph’s pleading eyes. “Rules. Rules. I can’t break the rules.”
“You broke the rules once,” Ralph countered. “You got tossed out of the pantheon – you must have broken a doozy.”
Doggerrall snorted. To Ralph, it was confirmation.
“Even if I did,” Jordan explained, “it wouldn’t work. Humans are so fragile. Their minds are simple and brittle. She would break, Raphael. Her spirit is here, ascended into the Celestial Realm. She has experienced the Beyond, absorbed its grandeur. If she returned to her body, to earth, her mind would shatter.”
Ralph brooded, unsure of his next move. It was Doggerrall that provided the answer. “The Ash,” he said. “Lest we forget the Ash of Amnesia.” He rolled his golden eyes with irony.
“Doggerrall!” Ralph shouted, “You’re right. The Ash is the answer. We have to fly at once – retrieve her spirit – bring it back here – reunify her spirit with her body.”
Mr. Jordan pondered. “It might work. It just very well might. But Time is your enemy, Raphael. You have only an hour to Capture and Cage Seven-of-Seven, Sloth. You must prioritize. Choose the task that is most important to you.”
Ralph looked upon the white, waxen face of his ex-wife, his lover, his friend. He paced nervously, slapping his pate with his palms, flagellating his brain for not providing ready solutions to complex problems.
“Both,” he spat. “I can do both. I am a man. I am an angel. I have two natures. I can do two things. Raphael can save Virginia. I . . . Ralph . . . can capture Sloth.”
Mr. Jordan scrubbed his chin. “You’re talking about bifurcation and bilocation.”
“Yes,” Jordan said, scratching out an invisible equation with his finger. “It’s never been done. You’d have to decouple – separate your angel nature from your human nature. The fear is that Raphael would not have an emotional motivation to save the female, and Ralph would not have the supernatural prowess required to incarcerate a Cardinal.”
Ralph glanced at the Panasonic Flip Clock Radio. A plastic panel flipped and clicked. Another minute lost. Twenty-seven minutes remained.
“The fear is,” Ralph said, “that if we don’t do this now – right this minute – humanity is doomed. Not just Virginia. Not just Mirabelle. All of humanity gets . . . what? Annihilated? Rebooted? Whatever fate tickles the fancy of Our Betters! So do it, Mr. Jordan. Decouple me. Bifurcate me. Bilocate me. Send Raphael to reunite V with her spirit. Send me to do the only job I know – bounty hunting.”
Mr. Jordan looked inward, into his deepest recesses. His lips moved as he silently recited prayers and spells and incantations. He erased invisible formulae with his palm and started over. He shook his head and pulled his hair, frustrated at his mistakes. Then, with his hands lifted, his head rolling from shoulder to shoulder, he reached a reverie that caused him to glow.
“I’ll need your sword,” he said in an exhausted but excited voice. “I’ll need Fidel.”
Without hesitation, Ralph shot the blade from his palm. It detached and fell noiselessly into the cotton fog. Jordan picked it up, handling it like a stiff serpent. He gripped the blade tightly, squeezing until blood flowed from the gashes in his hands.
“A feather,” he intoned. “Pluck a feather from each wing and toss it into the air.”
Ralph did as he instructed. The feathers floated momentarily, then drifted downward. Before they were lost in the fog, Jordan slashed them with the twirling sword. His movements were lightning fast, the steel flashing, the feathers disintegrating into a mince of filaments. Like a windblown dandelion, the white wisps filled the air and fell where they may.
“Now,” Jordan exhorted, “another.”
Ralph plucked another feather from his shoulder and tossed it.
“Are you ready?” Jordan asked, watching the feather freefall in a slow see-saw motion.
Ralph looked at Virginia and steeled himself. “I am ready.”
Jordan closed his eyes and raised Fidel over his head. Rivulets of blood seeped from his palms, staining his cuffs, filling the sleeves of his pinstriped suit. Jordan intoned a psalm in a language that Ralph did not know, but Raphael did.
Solomon, Solomon – Son of man
Wise and rich, ruler of lands
Cleave the flesh, as mothers cry
Split the infant, divide the child
Let mortals bleed and angels fly
One must live and one must die
The ominous song unsettled Ralph, as did the sight of Jordan wielding Fidel with his eyes closed, enraptured by trance and magic.
“Jordan,” he said.
Doggerrall made a shushing sound with his nostrils.
As the flurry of filaments settled into the pillowed drifts, Mr. Jordan muttered the word Amen. He then swung the sword, missing Ralph by mere inches.
Ralph flinched and blinked, staggering back. When he opened his eyes, he saw that Jordan had separated the floating feather into two vertical halves, splitting the quill with surgical precision.
“So be it,” Jordan said, opening his eyes.
Ralph felt a string of fire – a single meridian, hot and searing, connecting the crown of his skull to the soles of his feet. His vision doubled and his throat closed. His lungs inflated, but he could not breathe. His heartbeat speeded and his pulse pounded and bloody beads of sweat poured out of him.
“It’s happening,” Doggerrall said to Jordan. “In all my years, I’ve never witnessed a Decoupling. Well done.”
Jordan smiled cautiously, uncertain of his success. He would not accept approbation until . . .
. . . and then it happened. Raphael, Angel of Ark, stepped out of Ralph Chamberlain’s body, wings expanded, majestic and pristine. His aura blazed like a thousand icy suns, light without heat.
Ralph collapsed as the angel evacuated his corporeal vessel. Raphael reached out his hand, helping his former host to his feet.
“You,” Ralph said.
“You,” Raphael repeated.
The Panasonic clock advanced backward, flipping another number: 000:22:39.
“Time,” Mr. Jordan said, “is of the essence. I believe you both have your assignments. Are there any questions?”
Raphael, naked and beautiful, shook his leonine head and leaped, his replenished wings beating the ground fog into tempests. “Gods’ speed, my friend,” he called, encouraging Ralph.
“Questions?” Ralph said, “That’s all I’ve got is questions. Look at Raphael.” They observed the winged deity launch through an astral passage, speeding to his task, heroic and mighty. The scene was awesome and exalting. “Look at him,” Ralph said, “and look at me.”
Mr. Jordan did look. The man he saw was old, as old as James Mason, the actor he’d adopted for his avatar. “You can do this, Mr. Chamberlain. May I call you Ralph?”
“Yes, but no,” Ralph stammered. “I mean, I don’t even know exactly what I’m supposed to do.”
Mr. Jordan sighed and straightened Ralph’s pea coat collar and then patted his shoulders. “You’ll know.”
“Easy for you to say,” Ralph said, “but if I mess this up . . . if I fail . . .”
“Take this,” Jordan said, darting his eyes from side to side. He opened Ralph’s hand and pressed Fidel into his palm, sliding the steel into his forearm like a scabbard.
Ralph dropped to his knees, weeping and pleading for Jordan to stop. The pain was unbearable. His strictly human form had no angelic prophylactic against agony.
“I’m sorry,” Jordan said, “but you will thank me.” He pushed until a meter of steel disappeared into Ralph’s flesh. He spoke a spell as he massaged Ralph’s arm. When the spell was finished, there was no blood, no pain.
“You have approximately one half hour to defeat the final Cardinal Sin,” Jordan said. “You must Capture Sloth and Cage her inside the Ark. In so doing, the earth and earthlings will carry on. Status quo. Such is your mission.”
“Should I choose to accept it,” Ralph cracked, then almost cried. “It’s impossible – without wings, without angelic powers – impossible. I’m just a man. An old man, broken by time and tragedy. I’m Ralph, not Raphael. I’m no angel. I’m just a man.”
Doggerrall turned his head, embarrassed by the human’s excuses. “Mankind,” he grumbled.
Mr. Jordan lifted Ralph by his armpits. “Come with me. Observe.” They walked some distance when Jordan halted, sensing the exact location. He waved away clouds and cleared a crystal portal on the floor. “Look,” he pointed.
Ralph saw the rooftop of his house in Mexico. “Home,” he said. “Mirabelle. Is she . . .”
Jordan uttered some magic, and the roof dissolved. The interior of the house shown, exposed. It was an absolute disaster. There was nothing but clutter and junk, heaps of garbage and goods, stacked at irregular angles, piled comically high, threatening to fall and crush unlucky inhabitants. It was a hoarder’s house.
“Mirabelle,” Ralph whispered. “She’s there – in that, that, that dump! She’s in danger. I’ve got to go, Jordan. Get me down there. Now!” Ralph kneeled and drubbed his fists against the crystal portal, attempting to smash it.
“You’ll need these,” Mr. Jordan said, holding two halves of the split feather. One half gets you to earth, the other half helps you complete your mission.”
Ralph took the feather, unsure of the gesture, unsure of the totem’s power. He reflected upon the multiple instances he and Raphael had gifted feathers to those deserving.
“Am I deserving?”
Mr. Jordan did not answer with words. Instead, he pointed to the dilating portal. His smile said: Let’s find out.
Ralph returned the smile – lopsided and fearful. “Will I see you again?”
Jordan duplicated the sentiment with his elastic actor’s face.
Let’s find out.
Eagerly, Ralph leapt, plunging headlong into the portal like a penguin in an ice hole. He was not even aware that Fidel had spearheaded the dive, its leading edge slicing the sky. He willed his wings to activate; nothing happened. Rather, gravity happened. Freefall happened. Consequently, panic happened.
Losing control, Ralph tumbled from the heavens, cartwheeling, hurtling through stratums of space and time. His body revolted against the breakneck velocity, buckling to the pressures of gravitational forces. There was no light; all was black. Nothing to fixate on as he fell pell-mell, disoriented and dizzy.
He tried to scream, but his lungs froze and his larynx locked. He could feel his eyes jiggle and his teeth rattle. In seconds, Ralph understood, physical forces would tear his mortal body, disintegrate it, atomize it. With all of his strength, he willed his arm to lift the half feather to his lips. Instinctually, he kissed it . . . as piously as Father Severino had kissed his crucifix.
Immediately, the speed decreased, as if he’d breached a sea of thick stickiness – a sphere of viscous ether. It reminded him of a car crash he’d had while chasing a distraught father that had kidnapped his own child. The perp was accused of molestation by his ex. Ralph saw little evidence of the crime, but was obligated to catch the accused and return the girl safely. It all went sideways when the accused bolted, throwing the toddler in a Jeep and heading for high country. Ralph’s old International Scout was no match for the rock-climbing Wrangler. But that didn’t stop him. He hoped that the tumultuous pursuit would shake some sense into the jumper’s head, help him appreciate the risk he posed to himself and his daughter . . . but, no. The fugitive sped recklessly onward, over dangerous terrain. Eventually, he ran out of road. A deep ravine blocked his escape. Ralph pulled up behind him and keyed his speaker. “End of the road, Jerome. Let’s you and me discuss this like men – like fathers.”
“Fuck you,” Jerome shouted. “Fuck you and fuck the judge and fuck Darlene for lying about me. I ain’t no molester. I love little Britney Jean, but not like that!”
The man did not pause for Ralph’s response. Instead, he stamped the gas and charged the ravine. The jump was not perfect, nor had it the cinematic aesthetics of a Dukes of Hazzard stunt, but it was successful. Which was more than Ralph could say for his ensuing jump.
Ralph’s car crash occurred in slow motion. Just as his fall did now, in a sap of Space – weightlessly waiting for impact, for the reckoning of raw physics. Forever falling, it was as if he had all the time in the world – pre-existence, existence, and post-existence. The waves of Time collided into a perfect wave – ever-cresting; never-crashing.
Then there was light. Faint, at first; colorless and gloomy. Then, as if on a dimmer dial, it brightened by degree, until its brilliance was almost as blinding as the darkness. Through squinted eyes, he saw the blurry shapes of his own outstretched appendages – felt an uprush of icy winds under his gut and groin – and was, ultimately, able to use his hands as ailerons to evince stability and trajectory. For there it was, below him, like the glistening skin of a dewy blueberry, the earth. Upon earth, was home. At home, was Mirabelle.
His body flashed like a road flare. He was burning, he guessed, but could not feel the heat. Entering earth’s atmosphere – he should be incinerated, as most meteors were. But his body held, intact, unaffected by speed, heat, and the exceeding Gs. Jordan, he thought. He must have muttered something magical. Some protective spell . . . something that allowed an old man to travel through space without a suit or ship. Thank you, Mr. Jordan.
As the winds threatened to flay him, he noticed the shapes of oceans and gulfs and seas. Battered by clouds, he could barely make out the land configurations. He tried to smile as continental US appeared, but his lips nearly ripped free from his skull. South America revealed itself as he pierced a deck of cumulus clouds. Home.
Traveling twice the speed of sound, it’s easy to get burned.
Ralph was no astrophysicist, but he guessed that at his current speed and mass, his body could very well be responsible for mini-tsunami. He had to slow down; had to land instead of crash.
Fidel, he recalled. Jordan had gone to great lengths to gift the sword to Ralph. “You’ll thank me,” he’d said. Ralph strained against the muscular gravitational forces, pushing his palm forward, willing Fidel to reform, to flatten and warp, to become a shield. As he wielded it, something magical happened. The shield absorbed the external forces. Additionally, Ralph found that as he tilted the shield, he could steer.
Now navigating, Ralph controlled his descent and his landing. It was a good thing, that despite his age, he had been an avid user of Google Maps. The Gods’ Eye View of earth was no impediment for his journey – the only thing missing was a giant red pushpin showing his home’s location.
Even as Ralph alighted atop the terracotta roof of his modest ranch home in Carbino, Mexico, he could smell the rot beneath his feet. He scrambled across the tiles and peeked into his home through a dusty skylight. It was as Jordan had shown: his humble home had been transformed into a landfill of goods and garbage. Stacked, were Amazon boxes, their crooked smile logo mocking his own lopsided grin. Jammed between the Jenga-style piles was unmitigated garbage: to include rotting food and liquor bottles and moldy magazines. There was no categorization or compartmentalization. Plush animals, soiled and matted, sat alongside pizza boxes and decomposing eggplants; families of ceramic Hummel figurines camped with bags of cat litter and paint cans. Clothing dominated the landfill landscape. Kitschy socks and caps and QVC robes and frilly undergarments – price tags intact – wrapped the heaping rubbish like a Christo art display.
And there were televisions; dozens of televisions. Some were new, state-of-the-art, plasma, LED, curved and large. Others were vintage, black and white, vacuum-tubed, crowned with crooked antennas. All played the same movie: Heaven Can Wait.
“Mirabelle,” Ralph uttered, reaching for the bough of a tree in which he could shinny down to the ground. “She can’t be in there . . . by the Gods, she can’t be in that sty!”
What would have been a simple stunt when coupled with Raphael, proved agonizing, as Ralph negotiated the tree limbs and slowly lowered his mortal body to the uncut lawn. The weeds were so high that he felt stealthy as he approached the front door – his front door – to his house and home.
He checked his watch. In nineteen minutes, it would be exactly seven months since he’d left – since he’d embarked on his herculean labors. In nineteen minutes, humanity would either be extinct or oblivious to its brush with annihilation. In nineteen minutes, he, along with everyone he’d ever loved, would either be a living memory or an erased, blank slate. For a dark second, Ralph imagined a cackling God shaking an Etch-A-Sketch, dissolving a diagram of mankind.
“Mrs. Garcia,” he shouted, pounding on the locked door, “It’s me, Ralph Chamberlain. Unlock the door.”
He pressed his ear to the sweaty wood and listened. There was a shambling sound, as of some surly beast awakening from hibernation. Ralph pressed his shoulder and levered his weight, straining against the door. It was not locked, but it was blocked.
“I’m coming in,” he grunted. “Nothing. Can. Stop. Me.”
Laughter came from inside. It was muffled, as if from underground, as if from a tunnel.
“Mister Chamberlain,” the Latina voice trilled. “What a pleasant surprise . . . we’ve been waiting for you.”
Ralph slammed his body into the jamb of the door. He gained six, maybe seven inches of access. An exhalation of putrescence assaulted his senses. “Mrs. Garcia, the door is blocked.” A pizza carton tumbled through the gap. Fat maggots bounced on the welcome mat. “Move something. Dear God. Just move something.”
“You sound upset, Mr. Chamberlain,” she said coyly. “I wish you’d called before you popped in. The house is a mess. Give me time to tidy up. Yes, come back in twenty minutes, por favor.”
Ralph realized he’d been fooled all those months ago. He’d hired a Cardinal to take care of his most cherished treasure, Mirabelle. He’d brought Sloth into his home and relinquished guardianship of his granddaughter to the very devil he was chasing. Not only that, he’d relinquished his angelic powers for a preposterous attempt to redeem his dead ex-wife.
He pushed again, clutching his collar bone, rubbing his shoulder. “Let me in, Sloth. In the name and authority of Our Betters, I command you to comply.”
More laughter, this time tinkling and precious. “Nineteen minutes. It will give me time to tidy up, brush Miri’s hair, and heat up a delicious meal. I have Menudo. Perfect for weary travelers – hot, meaty stew with flautas and churros for dessert. Miri loves my churros.”
“Send her out,” Ralph shouted. “If you won’t let me in, send Mirabelle out.”
“Se senior, Chamberlain. In eighteen minutes,” Mrs. Garcia sang. “Via con deidades.”
Go with Gods, he interpreted, confirming his hunch about Mrs. Garcia’s demonic identity. In a tantrum, he pounded the paint-peeled door with the heels of his fists. It hurt. He was fully human, and the anodyne act proved excruciating. Exhausted, he stopped and examined his bloody hands. He groaned, leaning against the pine door. Had his labors been thwarted, by a door and a hoarding nanny? Beaten by his own mortal impotence? He dropped his face into his bloody hands and wept, kneeling on the maggoty welcome mat.
“Grampy,” a child’s voice called.
“Mirabelle,” he whispered, breathless from his failed siege.
“Miri!” he shouted. “Miri, get out of there. Run. Escape.”
“I can’t,” she mewled. “I’m in a cage.”
There was a wet bark and a rustle of stuff. “Shut your stupid mouth,” Mrs. Garcia screeched from the interior of Ralph’s house. “Shut up, you little ingrate. After all I gave you . . . you reward me with betrayal, you putada.”
Ralph stood and slapped the pine door. He leaned against it, gathering his strength and his wits. “Fidel, old friend. If you are able . . . if you are willing . . . please, one last time, lend me your steel.”
His hand blazed with pain as a stigmata arose. From the wound, the sword slowly emerged. Jaw clenched, he swallowed his screams and watched the tapered blade grow from his palm, silver and blue, sharp and long. As the pain subsided, Ralph did not hesitate. He slashed the pine door, carving it into manageable portions, which he pitched into the weeds that choked his cement steps. Black trash bags spilled out of the doorway like guts from an eviscerated whale. Riding the wave of refuse were maggots – more maggots than a man’s imagination could conceive. Ralph blinked and rubbed his eyes, more from the inconceivable scene than from the acrid odors. Entering, he called Mirabelle’s name.
“Grampy,” Mirabelle replied. “Be careful . . . she’s crazy! She eats people!”
Climbing up and over board games and model cars and action figures, Ralph surveyed the scene. His home, all 2,800 square feet of it, was filled with junk. Mrs. Garcia had obviously used his credit card to purchase online commodities, flea market oddities, as well as copious consumables, such as fast food and booze and ice cream. But where was she Mrs. Garcia? More importantly, where was Miri?
“Where are you, darling?” Ralph called. “Where ever you’re hiding, come out. It’s safe. Grampy’s here.”
“I said she eats people, Grampy!”
Mirabelle’s voice cracked with terror and exhaustion. Ralph, on his fours, climbed over a heap of cheeses and egg shells and discarded milk cartons. Fungi and molds squelched under his palms and knees. “Baby girl,” he said, gagging, “keep talking. I’ll find you if you just keep talking.”
“It hurts,” she said, her voice echoing, as if from a well.
There was little light. If not for the TV screens and one suspended lamp, the rooms would be totally obscure with miasma. Ralph slashed at a rampart of used tea bags and coffee grounds and banana skins. Fidel sank into the muck, proving useless to carve away space, or clear a path, given that the garbage had a self-sealing quality to it.
“Mrs. Garcia!” Ralph shouted, “Let’s negotiate. Give me the girl and you can go . . . go do whatever Sloths do.”
Her laugh, that effete tinkling ejaculation, filled the gaps between garbage, giving him no locus or source. “Whatever Sloths do,” she repeated, mimicking his voice perfectly. “All I want, Raphael – all WE want is for people to relax – to slow down – to eat, drink, and sleep – certainly, these three imperatives are the pillars of our existence. In the end, we all end up as worm food, so why waste our precious time with meaningless chores and vain endeavors? Why fight the worm? Why not become the worm?”
“Is that really a question?” Ralph asked.
“Is that really a question?” she countered, aping him.
Ralph slashed through the neck of a floor lamp and sparks radiated. “This is my house! I ask the questions! Now, where is my granddaughter?”
There was a sudden quake, a shaking of the fetid foundation upon which Ralph stood. The upheaval rhymed with a loud, liquid laugh. It’s under me, Ralph understood. Sloth, the final Cardinal, was hidden, burrowed into the tons of trash below him. With extreme prejudice, he stabbed the hump that breached the surface. It was as white as Ahab’s whale, but its skin seemed sick and blemished, as if its blood was poisoned from diet and idleness.
“Careful with that toothpick,” Sloth said, “wouldn’t want to poke out an eye . . . especially a child’s eye.”
“Mirabelle,” he called, cupping his hands like a bullhorn. “C’mon, Miri. Don’t be afraid. Let me know where you are, sweetheart.”
“I’m in a cage,” she repeated. “It’s dark. It’s wet and stinky. And there are pillows, Grampy. Jillions of little bitty pillows – like marshmallows.”
The creature within the debris lifted its head, in a periscope fashion, surveying the theater and its nemesis. Ralph recoiled at its sight, hugging his gut to prevent acute vomiting. At best, Sloth resembled a hulking, legless, soft-bodied maggot; at worst, it was an indescribable viscid glob of larvae horror. Through her semi-opaque tissue, Ralph could see the blurry blot of her brain, a strand of nerves, and a pink dot the size of a pecan. Her heart, he thought.
“Pillows,” Sloth laughed, “marshmallows,” it ruminated, smacking its maw. “I assure you, neither descriptions are correct. What surrounds the human child is . . . children. My children. My progeny. My spawn.”
“Maggots,” Ralph said, spitting one of the grubs.
Sloth shrugged off gobs of clinging garbage and presented itself, wholly, to Ralph. Again, Ralph’s empty stomach wretched – the thing was so unsightly, so abominable. To Ralph, it was the personification of a festering pustule, the monstrous embodiment of a sebaceous protrusion found in medieval plagues. Yet, it moved, and spoke, and mimicked, and plotted, and threatened, and . . . according to Mirabelle, ate people.
“What do you think?” Sloth said, showcasing her bulbous body like a beauty queen. “I am the Sloth Queen. Quite an improvement from that hideous cleaning lady, Garcia; don’t you think?”
“What have you done with her?”
“I ate her, of course,” Sloth said, licking her entire face with its blistered tongue. “She was the first. Then there were others. Delivery people. A Jehovah Witness. A solar panel salesman. Ate them. Ate them all. Haven’t you been listening to your granddaughter?”
“You didn’t,” Ralph started, then heaved a stream of bile. “Please. Tell me. You didn’t eat Mirabelle. Were you just mimicking her voice? Did you eat her?”
Sloth tossed her head back and laughed. Her lips were red, as if it’d chewed cherries into a jam and let it sour around her mouth. “Eat Mirabelle? That sweet little honeysuckle? Why, no. Of course not. She’s special. I’m saving her . . .”
Mirabelle shouted: “I’m in a cage, Grampy. Save me!”
Ralph looked left, right, up, down. He could not pinpoint the origin of the cry. She was under the jumble, submerged in the mire of muck and stuff. How could she speak? he wondered. How could she breathe? In this morass of merchandise and waste, how was she even alive?
Ralph’s eyes jerked sideways, fixed on a white PVC tube, four inches in diameter. It jutted up from the clutter like a mini-chimney. Surrounding the opening of the pipe, were cases of canned meats – Vienna Sausages – Mirabelle’s favorite food. Hundreds of discarded cans were scattered in proximity with the pipe, along with cases of small water bottles.
“You found her,” Sloth said. “She’s quite good at hide-and-seek. We played the game for the first few weeks after you left. Always on watch – for you, Raphael – to return unexpectedly. Once I realized you were dead or preoccupied, I emerged from Mrs. Garcia and took my rightful position as the Queen.”
“Emerged?” Ralph asked absently, digging with his bare hands, peering down the PVC pipe for signs of his granddaughter.
“She was my host,” Sloth said respectfully. “And a very fine host she was, Mrs. Garcia. I incubated in her bowels for years. Decades. And when the time was right, I emerged.”
Ralph stopped digging. “You used her body as a . . . a . . . womb?”
“Yes,” Sloth said. “And, of course, nutrition . . . in the aftermath of my birth . . . I consumed her.”
“Grampy! Help me! I can’t breathe! I can’t . . .”
Ralph willed Fidel to transform into a spade. The sword complied. Ralph dug, with the fever of a goldminer, certain that treasure was just shovels away. “Mirabelle, hang on, baby! Grampy’s got you!”
Making headway, Ralph raged. He slung shovels of collectibles and compost and befouled castoffs. “Miri, Miri, Miri,” he grunted, digging in sync with the cadence. “Miri, Miri, Miri . . . Grampy’s comin’. Hang on. Miri, Miri, Miri.”
A red slash spread the width of Sloth’s pupate face. Her single, vestigial eye rolled wildly. Her rudimentary legs twitched with excitement. “Go Grampy, go!” The Sloth Queen cheered. “You can save her. I know you can. Dig. Dig. Dig.”
Ralph needed no faux encouragement. He dug until he struck a bone. He reached into the muck-hole and retrieved the object. “Mirabelle,” he whimpered. “No, it can’t be.” He tossed off magazines and paperbacks and sheaves of moldy newspapers. “Miri, Miri, Miri . . . say something, baby. Talk to Grampy.”
“Hurry,” Sloth goaded, her gelatinous girth jiggling with anticipation.
Another bone. Then another. A rib, a femur, a jawbone, molars.
“What’s going on?” Ralph said to Sloth. To The Gods. To anyone.
“Keep digging,” Sloth said, breathless and wet. “She must be alive. You can hear her. Besides, it’s so much better if she’s alive.”
Ralph’s head was buzzing, as if from tinnitus. He had no time to parse Sloth’s declaration: So much better if she’s alive.
The heat and stench and stale air conspired to thwart the rescue, to abate his efforts. Finally, Ralph clawed a crater into the mound, revealing a scaffolding of bones mortared with glutinous ichor and solid sewage.
Blinded by sweat, he wiped his eyes and observed the edifice. It was a cage – the cage that Mirabelle had spoken of – a cage fashioned with a lattice of interlocking bones. And there, at the bottom of the cage, immersed in a slurry of food scraps and human waste, was his emaciated granddaughter.
“Mirabelle,” he said cautiously. “Is that you?”
Like a sick bird, she lifted her head and peered through jaundiced eyes. “Grampy? It’s really you . . . not just a dream?”
“It’s me, sweetheart.” He broke through bars of cold bones, crashing through the cage. He leaped into the pit next to the cage. He reached through the bone-bars and lifted Mirabelle’s head, arranging her bangs so that he could see her – fully, see the face of the child for which he’d fought demons and defied Gods.
“I’m going to get you out of here, Miri. We’ll go somewhere – somewhere safe, somewhere clean, somewhere fun.”
“Chucky Cheese?” she asked, then dipped her head, as if too heavy for her neck.
“Yes. A thousand times, yes.”
Sloth waggled an appendage that could have been hand or flipper; Ralph could not discern. “Careful what you promise, Raphael,” she said. “Mirabelle has dinner plans. With me. Me and my children.”
Ralph lifted Fidel and pointed it at her. “I’ll deal with you once she’s safe.”
“You’ll deal with me now,” the Sloth Queen said, no longer mimicking the accent of Mrs. Garcia. Her eye darkened and then she keened, releasing a high-pitched wail.
Ralph retracted Fidel and clapped his hands over his ears. The keening became a siren in his head, vibrating his molars, grinding his ear bones, the undercurrent of buzzing causing nausea. He thought he might lose control of his bowels. In a sonic stupor, he observed an army of white dots advancing. Pillows. Jillions of little bitty pillows, he thought. Marshmallows.
“My children must feed on virgin flesh,” Sloth said. “Once they are nourished, they can fly . . . fly to the ends of the earth and await the Great Banquet.”
“What are you babbling about?” Ralph shouted.
The laughter returned – so regal, so genteel. “My dear Raphael, because of your abject failure, all of humanity must perish and decay. Oh, the feast we will have – my brood and I.”
The thought of Sloth and her maggot babies feasting on the remains of rotting bodies – human bodies – galled him. “I’ve no time to entertain your sick, culinary fantasies.” Ralph engaged Fidel and swiped at the marching maggots, to little avail. The larvae simply divided and continued, doubling their numbers. Ralph reached out and captured one. He tweezed it between his thumb and forefinger. Up close, it was even more repulsive than its mother. Through its translucent skin, he saw the one inchoate eye and a notional blot of brain and the pink speck of its heart. Aside from that, there was only a mouth – a mouth replete with acidic teeth. Ralph squeezed it like a pimple. Immediately, his hand was afire with its noxious fluids.
Sloth laughed more boisterously, less mannerly. “Lesson learned, I hope.”
Ralph reacted, swinging the spade that Fidel had fashioned, striking the Sloth Queen’s midsection. To Ralph’s astonishment, Fidel stalled. Its slashing steel entered the blob but did not exit, nor did it ravage the body. It simply stuck, unmoving, not unlike Excalibur locked in Merlin’s stone.
“You’ve got,” Ralph struggled, “something that belongs to me.” He tugged with all his mortal might, but could not extract Fidel.
The Sloth Queen smiled, the cherry smear of her mouth contrasting against her colorless skin. The wound from the sword seeped a silver fluid, which slid down the blade toward Ralph’s palm. The fluid sizzled and crackled, feeding on the steel molecules, eating its strength. Fidel waned and softened, its legendary rigidity becoming limp.
“It happens, Raphael,” she said clinically. “To men of a certain age. Don’t be embarrassed.”
At the entry point of her wound, Fidel began to disintegrate. The dissolution traveled the length of the blade, back to Ralph’s right hand, searing his palm with a charred stigmata. He shook his hand and then sucked the palm, kissing the sting.
“What have you done?” he cried. “Fidel. My only friend. My only weapon.”
“Only weapon,” Sloth mocked. “You’re of the Order of Ark. You’re Raphael. Don’t attempt to underplay your strengths, Angel.”
“I’m no angel,” Ralph said, happy with the declaration. “I am a man, just a man.”
“You lie. Our Betters would not send a mere man to capture me – Seven of Seven. I am the Sloth Queen. I am the Zenith of Iniquity, the Loadstar of Lethargy. The Empress of Indolence. A man is no match for me. Show your wings, Angel.”
“I told you, I’m no angel,” he said. “I’m a grandfather, and I’m mad as hell. Hand over Mirabelle and I’ll leave you to your . . . sloth.”
Colors, as of the Aurora Borealis, exploded within the translucent monster. “You’re serious. It is said that Ark Angels cannot lie. Is this the lie of a man, or the truth of an angel?”
“I told you,” Ralph shouted, “I’m no angel! Now call off your brood of maggots – they can feast on the ruins of humanity, but not my granddaughter.” He broke off the leg of an upended chair and began smashing the advancing maggots. Each strike ignited a small explosion. Acid splashed on his hands and arms, but he did not desist.
The Sloth Queen wailed, her pitch high enough to shatter windows, mirrors, stemware, and some of the TV screens. Ralph expected the suspended lamp to shatter, but it held. Turkish craftsmanship, he thought.
She attacked him, her bulbous body ambulating, undulating. Her unctuous bulk glided over the landscape of junk. He looked up as she extended a lardy paw, as large as his entire body. She swatted him, knocking him off the hill of garbage, into a trench of sewage.
Ralph imagined that he would spring back and attack. But his human body would not cooperate. He lay there, in the slop, face down, pleading with his muscles to power his body into action. Nothing happened. The Queen’s laughter rained down upon him in drizzling humiliation. At this moment, he noticed the Panasonic flip clock radio – a replica of the one in the Celestial Chamber. The time read: 000:12:49.
“I’m embarrassed for you, Ralph. Is it Ralph? Really . . . Ralph?” She shook her amorphous head in pantomime shame. “More so, I’m embarrassed for Our Betters. And for your pathetic species. But mostly, I’m embarrassed for myself.”
Ralph willed himself to stand. He plucked a lady’s shoe from the debris and threw it at Sloth. She absorbed it. The footwear floated within her, suspended, until a wash of red enzymes atomized it.
“That’s what will happen to you, Ralph,” she said. “When my children have fed and flown, I will devour you . . . not before, no, no. I want you to see your little Princess’ skeleton. I want you to hear her scream each time my ravenous family strips away a morsel of her flesh.”
“Grampy,” Mirabelle said, groggy by frightened. “They’re coming. The marshmallow monsters are coming. Ouch!”
Ralph looked up. Mirabelle was holding her arm. When she lifted her hand, he saw the wound. The bite mark was small, half the diameter of a dime. It was round and red – cherry red – the shape of the Sloth Queen’s mouth.
“It hurts, Grampy! So, so, bad. Kiss it. Please, Grampy.”
Ralph moved toward Mirabelle. As he did, he noticed a black fly buzzing clumsily above her. It was like no other bug he’d seen – there were no segments, no legs, and just one eye. It was, he now saw, all mouth and wings, except for a stinger, curled furtively under its abdomen.
“Fly, fly, fly away,” the Queen Mother sang. “Fly, my child. Until we meet again at the Great Banquet.”
The fat fly gained strength and flew to a broken window. It hesitated, buzzing sonorously, then eloped into the wind stream of the world.
Mirabelle yelled again, and again. Two more maggots metamorphosed into two black flies and departed their cradle of filth.
“Make them stop, Grampy,” she cried. Her legs bore two more rings of bug bites.
Ralph challenged Sloth, beating his chest. “Take me. I’m bigger, fatter. They can have me . . . instead . . . please, Oh Queen. I beg you. Take my life for hers.”
She tsked, her sticky mouth smacking grossly. “I’m sorry, Ralph. It’s a hard no. You’re meat is too tough and stringy for my precious babies. And, I doubt you’re a virgin. Don’t ask me why, but virgin flesh is a requisite for metamorphosis. Only Our Betters know why.”
Ralph kicked over a stack of pizza boxes, searching for a weapon. There was his old tool box. He opened it and flung the pipe wrench at Sloth. She absorbed it. He hurled screwdrivers and plyers and sockets. She laughed as she subsumed the tools, her rotund body bouncing jovially.
“Take this,” he shouted, slinging a handful of double-A batteries.
This seemed to agitate Sloth. Her kaleidoscopic colors darkened, becoming something of a storm cloud. She twitched and cramped, her cherry mouth clenched into a rictus. To Ralph, she seemed to be in great discomfort.
“Don’t like that, do you?” he taunted. He grabbed a claw hammer from his tool box and shook it at her. “Here’s something you’re really not going to like.”
She swung at him with her globular paw. Ralph dodged it by leaping into a heap of cat litter and doggy chew toys. The hammer still in his hand, he charged the short hill upon which Mirabelle was being sieged by an army of voracious larvae. He wasted no time with threats. He began smashing the advancing bugs.
“Noooo,” the Sloth Queen screeched. “Stop it! I command you!”
Ralph looked up, his face and hands pocked with splatters of acid, bleeding but grinning wildly. “Do you love them, Mother? All of them?”
“Yessss,” she wailed, advancing through the litter. “I love them all.”
Ralph raised the hammer and brought it down, smashing a snarling maggot. “That one? You love that one?” He smashed another. “And that one?”
She keened and cried, “Yes, I love them all. But not as much as I’ll love destroying you.” She charged, her bulk undulating and in locomotive waves, the cherry smear of her mouth widening to the size of his Ralph’s head.
Again, he dodged her by leaping onto another mound. Within his own home, his orientation was askew. He was unsure if he were in his dining room or great room. The only clue was the lighting fixture hanging from the ceiling. It was a Turkish Mosque lamp that he’d purchased while deployed in Istanbul. He’d bought if for Virginia. It was a handcrafted cut-glass mosaic chandelier, and it was spectacular. Virginia had loved it. Cherished it. Was sometimes caught, by him, standing, staring up at it, mesmerized by its illuminated hues, smiling. He recalled that she had asked for it in the divorce settlement, but he had rejected her pleas; had, sadly, kept it for spite.
Mirabelle screamed again, shaking the voracious babies off her arm, brushing them off her legs. Each time a bug bit her, it blackened and gained wings, then flew wobbly away, out of broken windows.
Ralph stomped more bugs with boots. He danced on them, jigging like a minstrel, spurred by the splashes of acid on his legs.
“Would you die for them?” he asked, breathless.
“Die?” the Queen asked.
“Would you die for them? Your children?”
She exhaled a red cloud of noxious gas, exasperated with his antics. “It is you that shall die for my children, human – for the ones you have murdered.” Sloth sprouted something akin to a tail; she swiped at him, knocking him off his perch of trash. The bugs sprung on him like leaping fleas, covering his body, biting his clothes and skin.
He looked up and the mosque lamp was directly overhead, spinning. Dizzy from the pain and smells and adrenaline, he attempted to orient himself. The lamp, as he recalled, was mere ten feet from the coat closet. Within the coat closet, resided a safe – his gun safe. If he could rummage through the clutter and find the closet door, the doorknob, the safe, the lock, and ultimately, the gun, perhaps he had a chance.
Trapped, Mirabelle rattled her bone cage and yelled for help. “Grampy, they’re getting in! They’re biting me!”
So they were. Ralph saw more and more black flies ascend and escape, eager to begin their feast at the table of the Great Banquet. Each of them carried a morsel of his granddaughter’s flesh in their red-rimmed mouths.
“You didn’t answer,” Ralph challenged. “I would die for my family. I could say that I have died for them. And today, right now, as I stand before you, I declare that I will die for my granddaughter, Mirabelle. If you call off your brood and release her, I will remain – and you can do with me as you will. You have my word.”
The Sloth Queen sweated a red slime. It beaded, like jewels, upon her amorphous body. To Ralph, she seemed to ponder the proposition. The alternative was to chase him, fight him, and capture him . . . an arduous task for one so disinclined as Sloth.
Then, the tinkling laughter. The sound of it shattered his hopes of a ransom swop.
Her cherry red maw dilated, and she spoke through her mirth. “You would give your life for this stripling? You are dumber than I thought, Ralph Chamberlain.”
Ralph saw no hope for negotiations. The gun – that was now Plan A. But first, he must deal with the marshmallow monsters.
The Sloth Queen’s reaction to the batteries gave him an idea. He leaped and grabbed the looping wires from which the Turkish Mosque lamp depended. He snatched the wires out of the lamp housing and separated the red, black, and green. He threw the glass lamp at Sloth, distracting her, as he ran the copper ends to Mirabelle’s bone cage, where the marauding maggots were amassed. Unsure of the electrodynamics, he took a wild chance and stabbed the copper tips into the bio-mass of the Marshmallow Monsters. Immediately, there was an electro-chemical reaction. The bugs sparked and smoked and exploded, one after another. It was a chain reaction. Given that the maggots were essentially conjoined as a single organism, the electricity flowed unimpeded, from brother to brother, sister to sister, zapping them like popcorn kernels.
The smell was immediate and overwhelming. It was so caustic that Ralph was suddenly certain that he and Mirabelle’s lungs would be critically scorched. Armed only with a hammer, he climbed over the holocaust of maggots and began thrashing at the joints of the bone cage. “Hold on, babygirl. Breathe through your shirt – pull it up over your nose and mouth. Hold on, Grampy’s got you.”
Meanwhile, the collective keening of the Queen and her issue was so loud that Ralph was not even sure that his granddaughter heard his instructions. Then, miraculously, she did as she was told. His heart grew. She wanted to live. She was a fighter, like her Grampy. Together, he knew, they would fight and survive, or they would fight and die. Either way, they would fight.
The Panasonic clock radio flipped to 000:07:00. Seven minutes to Capture and Cage Seven-of-Seven, he thought. Meanwhile, on a panorama of TV screens, Mr. Jordan was assuring Warren Beatty’s character, Joe Pendleton, that there was no mistake, that he had indeed been killed while riding his bicycle.
Ralph smashed the bone cage with crazed abandon. Had he not been so myopic in his focus, he would have noticed wrist watches and bracelets and titanium implants, still secured to the human bones. The most poignant was the strand of Mrs. Garcia’s rosary beads.
“Grampy,” Mirabelle said, “I’m sleepy. I . . . I . . . I . . .”
He was losing her, he knew. He raised the hammer higher and struck harder. On the ninth strike, it worked. There was an opening large enough to reach inside and pull her free. Ralph pressed her to his chest, pushing her face into flap of his pea coat, shielding her from the pollution. He lifted her and ran; ran to the broken window in which the lucky bugs had absconded. Then he did something that he was not proud of – he tossed her, his granddaughter, out of the window and into the openness and relative safety of his overgrown backyard.
The Queen, sitting atop the genocidal slurry of her steaming offspring, stopped keening. Her grief completed, she now turned to revenge. “Raphael, Angel of Ark, you have massacred my beloved family. For this, you will now die a thousand deaths, each more painful than the prior.”
Ralph lifted his face from the collar of his pea coat and coughed. “I told you, bitch. I’m not Raphael. I’m no angel. I’m just Ralph.”
“Impossible,” she shouted. “No mere mortal could have killed a generation of Cardinals. I am Seven-of-Seven, Sloth, Queen of the Cardinals. As surely as I live, you will die. You and your generation of putrid humans.”
Ralph backed up as she slowly advanced. He got his bearings by looking up at the ceiling, tracing the wires to where Virginia’s lamp once hung. Ten feet, he told himself. Ten feet toward the eastern exposure of the house, opposite of the window he’d just thrown his granddaughter. The closet was there. Under a ton of junk, it must be there. He examined his hand – stroking the puckered gateway from which Fidel had emerged and retreated. “Please, old friend, one last time. Not because I command you – for I am just a man. But because you are faithful, and I have faith.”
The Sloth Queen bolted, hurling her great weight at Ralph. He did the only thing he could do – dive.
His hands above his head, palms out, Ralph flipped out his legs and dove into the mass of trash. He didn’t know if Fidel had activated, but he knew he was successfully tunneling downward, through the strata.
He swam, arms rowing, deeper; into the sea of stink and rot. His hand touched something cold and round and familiar. The closet doorknob. Ralph clasped it with both hands and twisted; there was movement. He felt the passageway above him closing, as if the refuse was healing it, stitching its wound.
The Sloth Queen was above him, he knew, because she was shouting for him to come out. “Come out and take your punishment, human. If you don’t make me chase you, I will make it swift and painful, as opposed to slow and painful.”
The vibrations of her voice seeped through the crevasses, into his ears. It was, he thought, as though she was speaking from another dimension. Blinded, he pressed on. This was not only Plan A, it was his only hope.
“I’m coming in after you,” she resigned. “You’ve killed my children . . . and now, now –insult to injury – you’ve made me work to kill you. I pity you, human.”
Ralph strained against the closet door, levering his feet and legs for strength, creating space with his back and ass. He pushed and pulled and it opened, ever so slightly. Had he not lost weight from his seven-month labors, he would have not been able to wedge his body into the gap.
Murky light fell on him. From above, he saw the pale paw of Sloth scratching and digging. He heard her labored breathing and the smacking of her cherry-smeared mouth.
He punched through a sheaf of crumpled cereal boxes and hit something hard. The gun safe. It had to be. He felt it, like the fabled blind men caressing the elephant. Yes, there were the steel hinges and the beveled seam between door and frame. There was the combination dial and there was the latch. He’d never opened the safe in the dark. Never, of course, opened it while submerged in waste, being chased by a giant grub. This would be a first, he thought. Then pressed his ear to the dial.
Virginia’s birthday: 10-24-61. Counter-clockwise, clockwise, counter-clockwise . . . at the click, stop spinning. Push the dial and turn the latch simultaneously. Thankfully, the numbers were phosphorescent.
It was a Revere Safe, top of the line at the time of purchase. As Ralph flubbed the first attempt to crack it, he wished he’d ungraded to a biometric safe, the type that required only his fingerprints for access.
“There you are,” Sloth panted, her breath redolent of Mrs. Garcia’s perfume.
He looked up and saw her single eye peering down at him; he, a germ under a microscope.
She complained, “This is foolish, Ralph. Foolish and futile. Why are you making this so hard on yourself . . . hard on me?”
He cleared the combination with a fast spin, then landed on 10.
“Perhaps,” the Queen said, “I should abandon this task and seek lower hanging fruit.”
Ralph tried to concentrate, but he got the gist of Sloth’s threat.
“Perhaps, I should eat your granddaughter instead.” That tinkling, effete laughter was back. It made Ralph’s skin crawl.
He bit his lip to channel his focus. He passed 24 once then caught it on the second revolution.
“Perhaps,” the Sloth Queen mused, “I should reconsider your offer. Do you recall the offer you made, Ralph, just moments ago? You said you’d die for the stripling. You said you’d give your life for hers. Is that still on the table?”
Ralph wanted to scream YES, but bit his tongue. The offer meant nothing, he knew. Even if he sacrificed himself, the Betters would annihilate Mirabelle for his failure to Capture and Cage all seven of the Cardinals. He blamed himself for the predicament, as well as his counterpart, Raphael.
“Ralph,” she huffed. “Can you hear me, Ralph? There’s still time left. I’ll see to it that Miri is happy with in that remaining time. That is what you call her, isn’t it?”
A can of Sprite exploded, spewing fizzing soda into his eyes. He kept his hand steady, aware that another miss might very well doom Mirabelle and himself . . . not to mention, all of humanity.
“Tell ya what,” she bargained, “I could keep her alive . . . you know, as a pet. Surely, Our Betters would allow such a thing, given that I will have bested you. As well as entertained Them. Yes, I give you my word, Ralph Chamberlain, if you come out and sacrifice yourself, Mirabelle lives. It’s what you asked for. And it will save me so much bother. This toil is so taxing.”
Ralph calmed his hand and spun the dial to 59, 60, 61. At the click, he stopped. He pushed the dial with one hand while turning the latch with the other. He felt the lock release, the bolt retreat, the door pop free from the frame.
“You mock me with your silence,” she snarled. In a bipolar manner, she quickly switched from coaxing to cross. “How dare you – a human – disrespect the Queen of Cardinals?”
Using his legs for leverage, he pulled the safe door as he had the closet door, inch by painstaking inch.
“That’s it,” she declared. “Your time is up. I’m coming for you, Ralph Chamberlain. And when I capture you, I will make you watch as I pull the appendages from the stripling’s body, one by one.”
Sloth grew two hooked claws on two paws and began digging in earnest. She borrowed, like a mad badger, shoveling trash out of the passageway, cutting the distance between them.
Ralph reached his right hand into the safe. There was only a four-inch gap – the door would open no more. He felt for a weapon, any weapon. Nothing. He rammed his hand deeper, scraping his forearm and elbow. Still nothing.
Her mad laughter reached him a second before her claws did. She raked him, tearing two long gashes into his jacket and his back. The thought occurred to him, apropos of nothing: that’s where my wings were. If only I had wings.
Adrenalized, he jammed his hand further into the cavity of the safe. The feeling of cold steel and a teak stock was like no other. It was his baby: the Mossberg 590 12-gage shotgun with the 25-round drum magazine. It had gotten him out dozens of scrapes with violent jumpers in the past. But none of those jumpers had pinned him under a junkyard of clutter.
The Queen paused to lick her claws and catch her breath. “Blood,” she giggled, “mixes well with vodka. Perhaps I’ll treat myself to a toddy after this task.”
He tugged on the gun. It came out, partially. He worked it, wrangled it, tried to wedge it, but the drum magazine would not fit through the gap in the safe door. Ralph dropped the gun and used both hands to widen the opening, but to no avail. He heard the burrowing beast breathe deeply and regain her strength.
“Please be afraid, Ralph. Fear makes the blood spicy. Here I come.”
She double-downed on her mission, clawing and scraping away months of muck. Her single eye lighted the path like a miner’s lamp.
Ralph, exhausted, and yes, afraid, pulled the door one last time. It did not budge. The weapon – his only hope – remained within.
A claw caught his shoulder. It tore into the muscle, clipping tendons, scoring bones.
Is this how it ends? he asked the part of his brain that Raphael had occupied for seven months. You, up there? Me, down here? You, with my lady? Me, with this maggoty hag?
Another claw stabbed his hip, buckling him into an L. He cried out, immediately ashamed of his craven voice.
Maybe Mirabelle is safe, he told himself. Maybe she found her strength and got up – maybe she ran. Is still running. Maybe . . .”
“You stupid bug,” he heard from far, far away. “Get off my Grampy!”
It was her. It was Mirabelle; in the up-above, probably tugging on the tail of Sloth Queen, attempting to save him, her last remaining relative.
Another claw bit into his chest, shredding his left pectoral, sawing through three ribs. He couldn’t take much more. Any more, his brain corrected. Absolutely no more.
“That’s our princess,” the Queen whispered. “Hear her? She wants you to come out, Grampy. So do I. Miri and I are royalty – I’m the Queen and she’s the Princess. Royals always get their way, Ralph.”
Sloth reached and grasped Ralph around the waist, encircling him with her dirty, hooked claws. “Got you!”
He felt himself being lifted, as if disinterred from a grave. He was so small – a doll in the claws of this great creature, this Cardinal devil. Who was he to resist? After all, he was no angel. He was merely a man.
Mirabelle screamed full-throated, beyond fearful.
It quickened him, made him reach out and grip the iron gun safe, holding it as an anchor. “Fidel,” he called aloud, “If not now, then never.”
His palm itched with electricity. The sword eked up and out, stopping at his fingertips. The steel was new – an unblemished silver. Somehow he knew it was not Fidel, but of its family. That was enough. Would have to be enough.
Ralph jammed the blade into Sloth’s claw, carving off the slabs of hard, lardy tissue. “Take that, Queen Bitch!’
She keened and snatched back her paw, sucking it in her cherry maw. “You infuriate me,” she snuffled.
Ralph wasted no time; he pried the blade at the junction of the safe door, targeting the hinges. One, two, three hinges – each, as soft as cake for the magic blade.
He retracted the sword and clutched the safe door, wrenching it free from the frame. He then retrieved the Mossberg 12-gage and pointed it up, at his regal pursuer. Thumbing the safety, he pulled the trigger and fired three times, aiming at the Queen’s only eye.
The scream she released was so ear-piercing that had it not been for the blissful deafness afforded him by the shotgun’s report, he’d have surely gone mad.
The Queen retreated, jerking her girth out of the pit, out of the burrow. This was good, Ralph intuited, but equally bad. He might be temporarily reprieved, but Mirabelle was on the surface; and now, so was the Sloth Queen.
The smell of gun smoke buoyed Ralph. As long as he was shooting, he wasn’t dead. And not being dead meant that he had a chance . . . and so did Mirabelle and so did the human species.
Pointing up, he shot two more times and was delighted when hot fluids flushed down on him. He’d hurt the Queen, hurt her bad. He guessed he had twenty more rounds of buckshot to finish her. Or else.
First, he had to climb out of the tunnel. He envisioned himself trapped with the digestive tract of a mammoth animal – encased in something like a colon. He scrambled, using the shotgun butt as a shovel, digging, climbing, and finally emerging from the subterranean Hell. He wanted to come out guns-a-blazing, but thought better of it. He had to locate Mirabelle – ensure that she was safe. The last thing he wanted to do was kill his granddaughter in crossfire.
“Looking for this?” Sloth asked, her effete laugh now sickly. She held Mirabelle in her twin claws, pressing the girl to her hemorrhaging abdomen.
Ralph wiped grime out of his eyes and surveyed the scene. “Christ,” he sighed. “Are you really going to use a five-year old girl as a human shield?”
“Six,” Mirabelle shouted, squirming. “You missed my birthday, Grampy.”
He raised the barrel of the Mossberg, hoping to find a gap in which the pellet pattern could be both safe and injurious. “You’re Seven-of-Seven, the Cardinal Queen of Sloth. And look at ya . . . Queen Shit of Turd Mountain. Leaking pus and guts and using a young human – a stripling – to protect you from an old human. Pathetic.”
“You killed my children,” she burbled, “and now I’m going to kill yours.”
Ralph heard pain in her voice, and something else even more encouraging: fear. He took two steps toward her, moving the barrel side-to-side. Her head was a bloody mess, and her single eye was fragmented from the blast. Still, the nut of her pink heart remained intact. “I’ve got another twenty rounds, Sloth. In the words of your Cardinal Brother, Hoss Proffit: Want some?”
“Put the gun in your mouth,” Sloth commanded, her back to the wall. “Do it, or I open her up and wear her guts for a crown.”
Ralph dared not take another step forward. The footing was as unsure as it was loud. He could not risk Mirabelle’s life on the hope Sloth he’d blinded her.
“Do it,” she cawed. “Put the gun in your mouth and pull the trigger. I’m only calling you on your original deal. You die; she lives. Are you reneging, Ralph Chamberlain? Are you a liar? Are you a coward?”
“I’ve been all those things,” Ralph said. “But I’ve also been honest and brave and noble.”
“Noble,” she laughed. “The closest you got to nobility was when Raphael inhabited your decrepit carcass. Rightfully, he abandoned you. What’s left, is nothing. You are nothing . . . nothing but a hopeless human.”
Ralph lowered the gun. “Put her down. Let her go. I’ll honor my word.” He raised his right hand and said, “I swear to Our Betters. To The Gods of Gods. To The Pantheon of Majesties.”
From the gory goop of Sloth’s head, the cherry red mouth emerged. It bowed into a U and then straightened. “That clock,” she said, pointing to the Panasonic radio atop a soiled and soggy pillow. “Recognize it?”
Of course he did. It was Jordan’s clock – or, at least a facsimile of it.
“You have exactly three minutes,” she said. “If you blow out your brains, I promise to let our little Princess live. Additionally, I will surrender myself to Our Betters, so that your miserable species can continue to propagate and pollute and ruin this insignificant pebble of a planet. I’ll return next Cycle. I will create more children . . . and together we will feast at the Great Banquet. Consider yourself the victor, Ralph Chamberlain. To the victor go the spoils.”
Ralph rubbed his bald head, fingering the bullet groove that started this odyssey seven months ago. “Why should I believe you – a sinner – a sin?”
The clock flipped a minute. Now there were two.
Mirabelle twisted, prying the claws that held her. “Don’t do it, Grampy!”
Sloth laughed at the child’s futile struggles, pressing the tips of her dirty claws to Mirabelle’s throat. “Ralph,” she said, her voice mushy, “I am those things – a sinner, a sin. But I’m also a mother. Now, thanks to you, a childless mother. I don’t want vengeance, Ralph. I want my children. And the only way to get them is to start the next Cycle. It’s Game Over, as the Gods say. The sooner this Cycle ends, the sooner I can begin again.”
“If you don’t want vengeance,” Ralph countered, “then why do you want me to shoot myself?”
Her mouth drooped and her claws rattled. “Call it loose ends. You said you were noble. Prove it.”
Another minute flipped. Now there was one.
Ralph told Mirabelle, “Look away, Miri. Close your eyes and put your fingers in your ears.”
“No, Grampy. She’s lying. She’s a lazy liar. Please don’t –”
“When that clock zeros out,” the Queen reminded, “your options are gone. Gone, gone, gone. Looks like you have no choice but to trust me, Ralph.”
Ralph smiled his trademark grin. “Trust,” he said, tasting the word. “Okay, I trust you. All I ask is that you give me a moment.”
“A moment,” he finished, “to pray.”
She laughed loud enough to start an avalanche in the adjoining room. “Pray away, Ralph. Pray to Our Betters! Pray, pray, and pray some more.”
As she brayed, Ralph reached into his pocket and retrieved the halved feather. Solemnly, he bowed his head and placed his clasped hands before his face. He muttered something incomprehensible, and ended with: “Thy wills be done.”
The Sloth Queen rotated her head a full 360, searching. “I don’t see that your prayer was answered, Ralph. You’re still in the same predicament. And the clock is no kinder.”
Ralph looked at the clock, then at Miri, then at the shotgun. He lifted it, tilted it, and pressed the steel circle under his chin. “I love you, Miri.” He closed his eyes and pushed the trigger with his thumb.
The gun boomed and Mirabelle screamed and the Queen cackled. Ralph flew backward, subsumed by a tangle of moldy blankets and bras.
The Sloth Queen’s body jiggled and wiggled as she laughed. “Now, it’s your turn, Princess,” she said, raising her claws like a scythe. “You can die knowing your grandfather was noble . . . but gullible.”
Mirabelle kicked and wriggled, screaming for her Grampy. Sloth set the girl on a pile of rubble and held her by the hair. “It’s okay, Princess. You’ll be with Grampy in two seconds.” She licked the tips of her claws, painting them with cherry smear, then swept the weapon at the child’s neck.
Ralph Chamberlain arose from the garbage, gun leveled, and shot Sloth in the face. It rocked her backward, and she lost her grip on the girl. Her mouth formed a red O. The back of her head leaked gallons of pus and sludge.
“How?” was all Sloth said, staggering backward.
As if in answer, Ralph spat out the other half of the feather that Raphael had given to him. He did not pause. He pulled the trigger until the drum spun and all the shells were spent, aiming at the nut of her pink heart. The Sloth Queen degenerated into disparate puddles of quivering mush.
Engulfed in a wreath of blue smoke, Ralph reached into his shirt, searching for the Ark Amulet. It was not there.
“Looking for this?” a familiar voice said.
He looked up, eyes wide and panicked. “Raphael? Is that you?”
The light was so bright that Ralph had to squint.
“No time for pleasantries,” Raphael said, “you cite the creed and I’ll Capture the Cardinal.”
Ralph stuttered, staring at the Panasonic flip clock. For a second, he blanked, forgetting the creed. Then it came to him. “With the authority invested in me by Our Betters, I now pronounce you under arrest.”
Concurrently, Raphael flipped the top to the amulet and scooped a stream of viscous juices. As he did, the entirety of the Queen flowed forth, engorging the magic box. He snapped it shut and tossed the box to Ralph.
“We captured her,” Ralph rejoiced. He then looked at the clock, certain that the placard would flip the last digit to zero. “But we still have to cage her.”
Raphael pointed to a 14-inch black and white TV and said, “Heaven Can Wait.” James Mason, as Mr. Jordan, were in a spirited conversation and then, abruptly, the two actors broke character, stopping the scene. Joe pointed to Ralph through the fourth wall. Mr. Jordan nodded, acknowledging Ralph. He then bent and lifted the lid of Ark of the Covenant.
“What’s happening?” Ralph asked Raphael.
Raphael simply watched as Mr. Jordan motioned for Ralph to do something.
“Turn it up,” Raphael suggested.
Ralph climbed over a mound of rugs and linen sheets. He reached up and turned the volume tuner to its highest setting.
“Time’s up. Throw it,” Mr. Jordan said. “And don’t miss, Mr. Chamberlain.”
Ralph looked at the flip clock. Indeed, the placard was tipping, preparing to replace the one with a zero. Time was up.
“Throw it,” Raphael shouted to Ralph. “Throw the amulet into the Ark. NOW!”
Ralph did as he was instructed. He wound up and flung it as the placard slapped the placard, ending the Cycle, zeroing out the planet’s time. It was an imperfect throw from an imperfect man, but it was close enough. It penetrated the gray glass and traveled past Mason and Beatty. As it approached the Ark, a beam of blue light shot out and captured the amulet in midair. Immediately, the beam retracted, taking the small magic box into the large magic box. Mr. Jordan slammed the Ark’s lid and then wiped his dry mouth with his handkerchief.
“Never closer than that,” he said hoarsely. “I’m getting too old for this.”
“You and me both,” Ralph said, wading through refuse to get to Mirabelle.
Raphael dimmed his brilliance, allowing Ralph to view him fully for the first time. “Well done, Ralph Chamberlain. You’ve successfully Captured and Caged all Seven Cardinals. On behalf of Our Betters, I hereby offer you a reward.”
“Wait,” Ralph said, hugging Mirabelle. “I’ve got my hands full.” He kissed her face and stroked her hair and cried the happiest tears of his sixty years.
“Your reward.” Dramatically, Raphael opened his wings. Two women emerged, one from each wing.
“Virginia,” he said, astonished. “And Hannah. Thank the Gods, you’ve brought them both back. Thank the merciful Gods! Prayers do work!”
The two women floated, their bare feet above the muck. They were beautiful but oblivious. It was as if they were in a state of suspended animation, unable to interact on this plane.
“Mommy,” Mirabelle shouted. “Mommy, I missed you!”
Ralph moved toward them, reaching out to touch them. Crying, he called their names.
“They can’t hear you, Ralph,” Mr. Jordan said.
Jordan looked through the small screen to Raphael, passing the buck. Raphael bowed his leonine head and said, “Ralph. You must pick one. Only one. Such is the decree of Our Betters.”
“You’re not serious,” Ralph scoffed.
Mr. Jordan beetled his brow and nodded ever so slightly. Warren Beatty walked away, shaking his head, receding into the mist.
“But I,” Ralph started. “But we – all of us – we did it. We captured and caged the Seven Deadly Sins. The Cardinals. Surely the Gods will allow both – my daughter and my ex-wife to live. Surely.”
Raphael did not engage. He simply pointed to Virginia and then to Hannah. “Choose one or choose none. Those are your only options.”
Ralph dropped to his knees, gob smacked by the dilemma. “There has to be another option. I love them both. I can’t choose.”
“You can,” Raphael insisted. “I was a part of you, Ralph Chamberlain. I know what you are capable of. I know your strength.”
Mr. Jordan raised his finger politely. “We have to go, Raphael. The Gods are calling.”
As he spoke, the television screen blanched to pure white. The other dozen TVs did likewise.
Raphael said, “I’m sorry, Old Friend, you have to choose now.”
Ralph drew a deep breath. He looked at Virginia, then at Hannah, then at Mirabelle. Oh, the women he’d failed. Oh, the woes. Oh, the heartache. Oh, the anguish and sadness and misery. Oh, how he envied the angels. Oh, how he despised the Gods.
Kneeling in filth, Ralph Chamberlain, husband of Virginia, father of Hannah, made his choice.
Here are the links to the other two stories:
Writer: E. J. D’Alise
Word count: 1,865 words – approx. reading time: about 7 minutes based on 265 WPM
The Slow Start <<link
Writer: R. G. Broxson
Word count: 6,400 words – approx. reading time: about 24 minutes based on 265 WPM
If you’ve read all the stories and care to cast a vote, here’s the link to the Poll:
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